NFL Nation: Reggie Nelson

Missed tackles teach Bengals D a lesson

December, 12, 2013
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CINCINNATI -- When members of the Cincinnati Bengals' defense showed up Wednesday morning to review film from last Sunday's game against the Colts, they were in for a surprise.

Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer only wanted to show them eight plays from the game. That's it. Nothing more. Just eight simple plays out of the 58 they were on the field for.

Only, those eight plays weren't a highlight reel of well-executed stunts and blitzes. They didn't feature any forced turnovers or recovered, either. They were eight plays that told a story of ineptitude the likes of which the Bengals' defense had rarely seen all season. Mostly, the plays featured missed tackles from when the 42-28 win was well in hand. On two of them, defenders were seen grabbing at air and softly driving forearms and shoulders into pass-catchers who managed to eventually find the end zone.

[+] EnlargeIndianapolis' LaVon Brazill
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsThe Bengals defense allowed four second half touchdowns to the Colts.
Let's just say this about the plays Zimmer showed: they didn't put him in the jolliest or most cheerful of holiday moods.

"No, he wasn't," safety George Iloka said, grinning.

Asked to rank Zimmer's anger on a scale from 1 to 100, safety Reggie Nelson replied: "It was off the charts."

Zimmer wasn't very happy. But neither were the Bengals themselves. That's why they believe that film session and the rest of this week's practices will end up serving as important lessons.

"Practice all week, we're going to be a little more focused," Iloka said. "We have to go out there and play better for things to be how we want them to be."

The Bengals want the regular season to end with the overall team sporting a 12-4 record, the No. 2 AFC playoff seed, a first-round bye and a home-field postseason advantage. As a defense, they want to continue generating turnovers, shutting down the run and holding quarterbacks under 300 yards passing. Only two passers -- one of them being the Colts' Andrew Luck -- have gone beyond that mark in 13 games this season.

If Cincinnati's defenders can get back to 60 minutes of fundamentals, but keep the intimidating and physical style that made them a top-10 unit through much of the season, then they ought to accomplish all of that.

"We lost a little bit of [our edge] during the second half last week, so we've got to get it back," head coach Marvin Lewis said. "That's an important thing; to understand that when you have a game in control, keep control of it. That needs to transcend the group."

Cornerback Adam Jones had already digested that understanding on Monday, one day after the second-half collapse.

"Those guys should have scored seven points," Jones said of the Colts. "I'm not saying anything about their offense. They've got a good team and everything, but we gave them 21 points. We'll fix it, though.

"It's good when you win by 14 or 21 points. You can go back and fix those mistakes and it wasn't a loss."

Cincinnati will be hoping to get another big win Sunday night when it travels to Pittsburgh in a game that could come down to defense. Like all AFC North tilts, this one is expected to be a physical battle, even if the Steelers are all but eliminated from postseason contention.

Even the NFL's leading tackler wasn't immune to the missed tackles bug that spread around Cincinnati's defense last week.

"We take a big emphasis on tackling," Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict said. "Especially me, I hate missing tackles. I think I missed two tackles last game. For me, I realized I need to bend my knees more in practice or wrap up in practice."

Speaking of bugs, Burfict didn't get a chance to work on his form tackling Thursday thanks to an illness that had him and two others sidelined. Linebacker James Harrison and running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis also missed the workout.

Upon Further Review: Bengals Week 13

December, 2, 2013
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SAN DIEGO -- An examination of four hot issues from the Cincinnati Bengals' 17-10 win over the Chargers:

Dalton's second half: Paced by a running game that rediscovered itself in the second half, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton had his own resurgence of sorts in the final 30 minutes of Sunday's game. After stumbling to a 5-for-10, 41-yard, 21.2-passer rating performance through the first half, he bounced back in the second, completing nine of his final 13 passes and connecting with receivers for 149 yards. He also threw a key third-quarter touchdown and didn't turn the ball over, helping push his end-of-game passer rating to 83.6 -- his highest in five games. His 44.4 QBR also was his best since his career-high 98.9 that came in Cincinnati's 49-9 win over the New York Jets in Week 9. Part of what helped Dalton amass those final numbers was the Bengals' decision to recommit themselves to the run in the last two quarters. Cincinnati rushed for more than 150 yards (164) for the first time since its Week 7 win at Buffalo.

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Huber's (healed) left leg: Wednesday, punter Kevin Huber sent a chill through the Bengals' fan base when he appeared on the injury report for the first time this season. He barely practiced the rest of the week after being limited for part of the week by an injury to his left ankle. He kicks with his left leg. Apparently it wasn't feeling too badly. Huber had four punts in the game and sent them an average of 55.5 yards from the line of scrimmage. The first two, 75- and 56-yard blasts, set the tone early. He routinely flipped field position in the game, even pushing the Chargers up against their own goal line with his first one. That subsequent series resulted in San Diego's own need to punt. With the ball in decent field position, the Bengals drove 67 yards for a touchdown on their following possession.

Quiet secondary: It was easy to praise Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict for his strong 13-tackle, play-through-an-injury performance, but he wasn't the only one on the back end of Cincinnati's defense who had a big day. Linebacker Rey Maualuga, who was returning from his own lengthy knee injury, finished with 10 tackles, including a sack. Although he was beaten a couple of times on passes across the middle, he was a run-stopper much of the day, helping plug his share of holes. Along with their linebacker play, the Bengals also had quietly good performances from defensive backs George Iloka and Reggie Nelson, who each forced fumbles. Iloka's ended up preceding the Bengals' final possession of the game -- a nearly five-minute drive that included four first downs and ended with back-to-back kneel-downs.

Winning without Gresham: For the first time this year, the Bengals won a game in which tight end Jermaine Gresham didn't catch a pass. The only other time they even had a game in which Gresham went reception-less, they lost to the Baltimore Ravens. It wasn't as if Cincinnati was trying to completely avoid Gresham, though. He was targeted twice. Since a clear emphasis was being placed on the running game, Gresham ended up factoring in that department instead, helping open holes along the edges for running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard to run right through.

Upon Further Review: Bengals Week 11

November, 18, 2013
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CINCINNATI -- An examination of four hot issues from the Cincinnati Bengals' 41-20 win over the Browns:

Rey shines again: While linebackers James Harrison and Vontaze Burfict dominated the postgame headlines because of their key turnovers, the third starting member of their unit shouldn't be forgotten. Vincent Rey, appearing in his third game in relief of Rey Maualuga, quietly had 12 total tackles. Only Burfict (15) had more. It marked the second straight game that Rey had double-digit stops, following his 13-tackle performance at Baltimore last week. He now has 30 tackles, three sacks and an interception in the three games he has started since Maualuga was shelved due to a knee injury. Sunday's game likely was Rey's last start for a while, as Maualuga makes his return to the lineup. Before the game, Maualuga was going through agility and ladder drills.

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Tone setting: Another unsung defensive hero was safety Reggie Nelson. He finished with nine total tackles and had a timely second-half interception that helped signal the end for the Browns' offense. All throughout the third quarter, the Bengals' defense set a tone that it wasn't going to allow a late-game comeback to take place. Against the Bills earlier this season, they did allow a comeback that ended with the game in overtime. Mike Nugent's 43-yard field goal in the overtime period won that game, though. One of the better tone setters of the second half was cornerback Terence Newman. Although he was beaten on the very first play from scrimmage after halftime -- a 24-yard pass to Josh Gordon -- Newman had two key deflections on that drive, even one on fourth down when Gordon had raced by him.

Sanu sighting -- finally: It took 11 games, but at long last, Mohamed Sanu has scored for the Bengals. After scoring four touchdowns last season, each coming in a three-game stretch, Sanu picked up his first score this year when he caught a 6-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Andy Dalton in the Bengals' record-setting 31-point second quarter. Three plays before, he got involved in the offense in a slightly different manner when he fielded a lateral from Dalton before chucking the ball downfield for a 25-yard completion to running back Giovani Bernard. The trick play was called at the perfect time. It came on the Bengals' first drive after their first score. Following Sanu's touchdown reception, Cincinnati took a lead it wouldn't relinquish.

Beat the blockers: There was no magic trick, no secret formula to the one blocked punt, one tipped punt and one near-block the Bengals had on their return unit, special teams coach Darrin Simmons said. According to him, and the key players involved, they just "beat the blocker." It was all about speed, quickness and sprinting through the right hole at the right time, they said. Whether you believe that to be the case or not, it is clear the Bengals got into a great rhythm of sprinting past Cleveland's line virtually unabated in an effort to get their hands on Spencer Lanning's punts. After the game, Lanning said he wasn't operating too slowly. He felt the snap and approaches on his kicks were executed well.
Matthew Stafford had looked, kind of, for Calvin Johnson the play before. He was rushed. He threw the ball away and backed his team up with a rare intentional grounding call.

Plus, Detroit's right tackle, Corey Hilliard, injured his knee on the play. Down by seven points and backed up to a third-and-18 with 12 minutes, 10 seconds to go in the game, he stepped into the shotgun.

[+] EnlargeCalvin Johnson
Tim Fuller/USA TODAY SportsDetroit's Calvin Johnson jumps up to catch a 50-yard touchdown pass in what some players are calling the "best catch" ever.
Later, Detroit coach Jim Schwartz would say what came next was “schemed up.” Except not all of it could have been. No chance at all. Because no one schemes throwing to a receiver in triple coverage, even if it is Johnson.

And no one can realistically expect Johnson to come down with that catch. Yet he did.

Stafford lined up in shotgun, a running back directly to his left. Receiver Kris Durham was wide left and Ryan Broyles wide right. Johnson was in the slot and tight end Brandon Pettigrew was just off the line to the right side.

Then the ball was snapped.

“Rolled out right and they did a great job of playing deep to short (Sunday) with Calvin on the field,” Stafford said. “Held it as long as I could.”

Stafford rolled and actually had time to let Johnson streak down the field. Left tackle Riley Reiff, who had re-entered the game on that play after injuring his right hamstring earlier Sunday, had a good single block on Cincinnati defensive end Michael Johnson.

Center Dominic Raiola and left guard Rob Sims initially held their block as well, giving Stafford time to scan. But Raiola eventually lost his guy, sending Stafford running forward looking downfield.

Around the same time, Johnson -- who had been running just inside the numbers on the right side of the field -- cut inside to the post at the 30-yard line. Cincinnati safety George Iloka looked to pick Johnson up at this point in what appeared to be zone coverage. Iloka, though, could never get in front of Johnson, trailing him from the back the entire way.

Meanwhile, Stafford was running forward with Michael Johnson trailing him and closing fast.

“Matt had to buy a little time in the pocket and, you know, we saw that guy bearing down on him and didn’t know if he was going to be able to get that ball off,” Schwartz said.

He did, releasing the ball at the Detroit 48-yard line toward the end zone. What happened next was the surprising part.

Johnson found some room in the end zone, but was blanketed by Iloka behind him, linebacker Vontaze Burfict just to the left of him and a closing safety, Reggie Nelson, running toward the play and lining up to either intercept the ball or knock it down.

Nelson jumped with one foot instead of two and appeared to almost tip the ball, but Johnson appeared to reach up over him to grab it. He declined to talk with reporters after Sunday’s game.

“Oh man,” said Durham, who was close enough on the play to be the first Lions player to reach Johnson after he caught it. “That was in triple coverage. You’ve just got to say ‘Wow.’

“He’s probably the only person I’ve ever seen that could be able to make that play.”

Stafford didn’t see much of it. Michael Johnson hit him milliseconds after he threw the ball. Stafford’s head was initially down, but he looked up after a few seconds.

“Didn’t see a whole lot of it,” Stafford said. “Saw the very end of it with one of the best catches I’ve ever seen.”

It was one big catch in a day of many large catches for Johnson, who finished with nine for 155 yards and two touchdowns. None, though, as spectacular as his 50-yard grab in triple coverage -- a catch Cincinnati receiver A.J. Green called “unbelievable” and “the best I have ever seen.”

“He was also Megatron yesterday,” Schwartz said Monday, answering a question about Johnson’s health. “He wasn’t Calvin yesterday. He was Megatron yesterday.

“And he did everything he could to get us in position to win that game.”

Upon Further Review: Bengals Week 7

October, 21, 2013
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An examination of four hot issues from the Cincinnati Bengals' 27-24 win over the Detroit Lions:

[+] EnlargeA.J. Green
AP Photo/Paul SancyaA.J. Green caught six passes for 155 yards and a touchdown in Sunday's win over Detroit.
Green's day: As the Bengals' offense has become more diverse, forcing defenses to respect their bevy of playmaking threats, receiver A.J. Green has begun to benefit, too. For the second straight game, Green went for more than 100 yards receiving, catching six passes for 155 yards and a touchdown in Sunday's victory. His very first catch of the game was his lone touchdown reception, and it came on the Bengals' first drive as he put a double-move in single coverage on cornerback Chris Houston and ran by him. Wide open, he ended up sprinting under a pass and going 82 yards for the score. The catch was the 200th of his career, and later in the game he went over the 3,000-yard career mark.

Suh who? Statistically speaking, Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh wasn't as big a factor as had been anticipated. One week after hounding Cleveland quarterback Brandon Weeden (including one hit that resulted in a fine), he was mostly kept away from Dalton. Suh recorded one fourth-quarter sack on the Bengals quarterback, and arguably, it was the Lions' biggest defensive play. On third down, the pocket collapsed as Suh and the rest of the Lions' defensive line went hard toward Dalton and got better penetration than they had the whole game. It resulted in Suh grabbing Dalton as he went by him, and bringing him down for the game's only sack for either team. The sack resulted in a Kevin Huber punt, which was downed with 1:43 remaining at the Lions' 6. Suh and Dalton entered the game with a bit of a history after Suh had body slammed the then-helmetless quarterback on a post-play hit during a preseason game in Cincinnati's last trip to Ford Field.

Third-down woes: Cincinnati's defense allowed the Lions to convert on 13 of 19 third downs. Ahead of Monday night's game between the Vikings and Giants, that was the league's worst conversion rate of the weekend. The Bengals also had one of the highest third-down play totals among defenses in the league to this point in the weekend. Only New England's defense faced more third-down plays (21). Miami also had 19. Players and coaches alike were adamant after the game about cleaning up the third-down issues, even though, with the game on the line on Detroit's last drive, the Bengals got a big stop when safety Reggie Nelson forced Matthew Stafford to throw an incomplete pass that led to a punt, which set up the game-winning field goal.

'Special' teams: Carlos Dunlap was set on getting his hands on the football during David Akers' late second-quarter field goal attempt. At another point this season, he had come close to a block but didn't get it. This time around, Dunlap got the big block for the Bengals, sparking a special-teams uprising. In addition to his block, the Bengals had key punts from Huber, and Mike Nugent's second straight game-winning field goal.
DETROIT -- When Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Terence Newman made it back to the sideline after the Lions' first-quarter touchdown Sunday, he was given some of the hardest news he's heard all season.

"I lost it," Newman said.

He didn't say much about what exactly his losing it entailed. He didn't have to.

Newman had been told one of his teammates, a veteran player who he has come to know quite well and grow even fonder of, had just gone down with an injury whose severity is not yet immediately known. That player, seven-year vet Leon Hall, was dealing once again with an Achilles injury. For that reason, there was very little reason for Newman to try to hold it together.

"It's just tough," Newman said of Hall's injury following Cincinnati's 27-24 win. "He's one of the best in the league, you know? So to have one of the best corners in the league go down? It's tough. Especially when he's your brother. We all spend a lot of time together.

"It just sucks."

That, it does.

Hall's injury leaves the Bengals wondering what's next? Where do they turn from here? Who will pick up the mantle and take over where Hall left off?

Right now, the easy answer is for Cincinnati to look at its bench. After all, that's what the Bengals were forced to do Sunday when they had three quarters to play and couldn't snap their fingers, miraculously summoning someone off the street to add to their depth. In fact, when it comes to depth, from a talent and numbers standpoint, cornerback actually is one of the team's deepest positions. It's so deep that coach Marvin Lewis is quick to point out that he has a team full of "defensive backs."

What Lewis means is that he has safeties and cornerbacks who are so versatile that they can play either position. Players like Chris Crocker and Taylor Mays have performed multiple duties in their opportunities this season, and probably will even more now that Hall is hurt for what could be a long period of time.

"You can't replace somebody like Leon," safety Reggie Nelson said. "But somebody has to step up. One of our young dudes has to step up. That's something that [defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer] and those guys are going to have to look at and see who can go to battle for us."

In the event the Bengals don't make any external moves, they won't have far to turn when attempting to set their 46-man active roster ahead of next week's showdown against the Jets. In addition to having Crocker, potentially Mays and Adam Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick at cornerback, the Bengals also have Brandon Ghee and Chris Lewis-Harris who can be moved around for added depth. While Crocker is most likely to take on Hall's slot coverage duties, Jones and Kirkpatrick have filled in at times this season, as well. Ghee and Lewis-Harris were among the inactives this week, but could have that status changed next week, if need be.

Hall's injury is his second of the season, coming two weeks after he returned from a hamstring injury that kept him out of two games. It's also his second potentially major ailment in three years. During November of the 2011 season, he tore his left Achilles and was lost for the remainder of the year. Sources told ESPN's Bob Holtzman that it is believed Hall ruptured his right Achilles this time.

Locker Room Buzz: Cincinnati Bengals

October, 20, 2013
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DETROIT -- Observed in the locker room after the Cincinnati Bengals' 27-24 win over the Detroit Lions:

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Jokes on who? Like we wrote earlier this weekend, Bengals receiver A.J. Green and Lions wideout Calvin Johnson share a unique friendship. In front of his locker, Green was asked to share his thoughts on his colleague's impressive, high-leaping, 50-yard touchdown catch over triple coverage. "That was amazing, man," Green started to say. Someone nearby wasn't amused. Bengals safety Reggie Nelson, one of the three players who were beat by the 6-foot-5 receiver blurted out to reporters, "Oh, y'all trying to be funny?"

Not funny miss: For the record, Nelson was joking. His coach, Marvin Lewis, wasn't in a comedic mood during his postgame news conference when he called out officials who forced him to challenge a pivotal fourth-quarter incompletion. "That's one that shouldn't be missed," Lewis said. "That was an easy one for the seven guys on the field to see." Officials originally awarded the Lions' Joique Bell with a catch when he actually didn't possess it.

Hurt for Hall: Bengals cornerback Terence Newman said he and Nelson nearly cried on the sideline when they learned fellow corner Leon Hall suffered his second Achilles injury in three years. Lewis called the injury "significant."

Bengals declare DB trio inactive

September, 29, 2013
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CLEVELAND -- Cincinnati's secondary, it appears, will have its hands full against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on Sunday afternoon.

As had been anticipated for much of the week, about an hour and a half before the game, the Bengals declared a trio of injured defensive backs inactive. Cornerbacks Leon Hall and Dre Kirkpatrick and safety Reggie Nelson won't participate after trying all week to overcome respective hamstring injuries. Kirkpatrick has now missed the past two games, although he practiced Friday for the first time since getting hurt during the Bengals' Week 2 win against Pittsburgh.

Hall and Nelson were injured at the end of last week's win against the Green Bay Packers.

Adam Jones will take Hall's spot on the field at cornerback, and Taylor Mays will move into Nelson's spot at safety. After bouncing back from his own injury last Sunday, Jones played nearly every snap against the Packers. He'll likely be backed up by Brandon Ghee, who rejoined the team this week after being out the last six weeks with a concussion. Mays likely will be backed up by veteran Chris Crocker, who was re-signed earlier this week.

Along with the defensive backs, defensive end Margus Hunt also was listed on the inactives. It's the fourth straight game he's missed.

The Browns will be without their former starting quarterback, Brandon Weeden. Replaced last week by Brian Hoyer, a hometown kid who will be making his first career start at FirstEnergy Stadium, Weeden will miss his second straight game.

While Weeden will be out, kicker Billy Cundiff, who had a hamstring injury, will participate in Sunday's game for the Browns.

Here is the full list of inactives for the Bengals and Browns:

Bengals: S Reggie Nelson, CB Leon Hall, CB Dre Kirkpatrick, RB Rex Burkhead, G Mike Pollak, G Tanner Hawkinson, DE Margus Hunt

Browns: QB Brandon Weeden, LB Quentin Groves, OL Martin Wallace, OL Shawn Lauvao, TE Keavon Milton, DL Billy Winn, LB Jabaal Sheard

Fines signal officiating mistakes

September, 27, 2013
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- When players are fined for hits that were not penalized during the game, it’s essentially an admission of an officiating error.

For the second straight week, that applied to a Green Bay Packers' opponent.

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On Friday, the NFL announced it fined Cincinnati Bengals safety George Iloka $15,000 for his unpenalized hit during the first quarter of Sunday’s game that left Packers tight end Jermichael Finley with a concussion.

A league spokesman said Iloka was fined for “unnecessarily striking a defenseless player in the head and neck area.”

Finley could not return to the game, and his status is unknown for the Packers’ next game, following their bye, against Detroit on Oct. 6.

That fine came a week after Washington Redskins safety Brandon Meriweather was fined $42,000 for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Packers running back Eddie Lacy, who also was forced to leave the game with a concussion. Lacy did not play against the Bengals. Like in the case with Iloka, the game officials did not call a penalty on Meriweather.

Also on Friday, the league announced that Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict was fined a total of $31,000 for two infractions against the Packers -- one that was called a penalty and one that was not. He was docked $21,000 for “unnecessarily striking a defenseless player (Packers receiver James Jones) in the head and neck area” and another $10,000 for “striking” Packers tight end Ryan Taylor in the groin area. Burfict was not flagged for striking Taylor, who was penalized but not fined after he retaliated against Burfict.

Two other Packers players who were called for personal fouls -- linebacker Nick Perry and cornerback Tramon Williams -- were not fined. Neither was Bengals safety Reggie Nelson for his roughing the passer penalty against Aaron Rodgers, nor defensive end Michael Johnson for hitting Rodgers low, which also wasn’t penalized.

Bengals DB trio listed as doubtful

September, 27, 2013
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CINCINNATI -- Just when the Bengals secondary was in need of a little good news, the unit got it Friday morning when second-year cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick returned to practice for the first time in more than a week.

The defensive back had been out with a hamstring injury since the Bengals' win over the Pittsburgh Steelers two Mondays ago. Without him last weekend against the Packers, the Bengals rotated three cornerbacks, Leon Hall, Terence Newman and Adam Jones. Hall and Newman were both banged up in last Sunday's 34-30 win and either completely missed or were limited in practices this week. Newman, it appears, will be good to go this Sunday when the Bengals face the Browns in Cleveland.

Hall may be a different story, though. He and safety Reggie Nelson missed their third straight practice Friday. They've been sidelined since the win over Green Bay with hamstring injuries. Typically, the odds of playing aren't in the favor of injured players who miss Friday workouts. That doesn't mean neither will dress later this weekend, but there is a high chance they may not.

Coach Marvin Lewis didn't close the door on either player Friday, but the probability of either playing appears slim. Both were listed, along with Kirkpatrick, as doubtful for the weekend. We'll know their official status Sunday when the Bengals announce their inactives.

Here's how the rest of the Bengals' injury report looks entering the weekend:

DOUBTFUL: CB Leon Hall (hamstring), CB Dre Kirkpatrick (hamstring), S Reggie Nelson (hamstring), G Mike Pollak (knee)

PROBABLE: OT Anthony Collins (knee), CB Brandon Ghee (concussion), RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis (ankle), LB James Harrison (illness), CB Terence Newman (knee)
CINCINNATI -- The health of the Cincinnati Bengals' secondary will end up being a dominant story line this week as Cincinnati tries to prepare for Cleveland's rejuvenated offensive attack when the teams meet at FirstEnergy Stadium on Sunday afternoon.

During their first full practice since beating Green Bay last weekend, the Bengals were without several key defensive backs Wednesday afternoon. Veterans Leon Hall, Terence Newman and Reggie Nelson joined Dre Kirkpatrick in either limited or non-practice capacity. On the heels of arguably the most physical and draining game of the season for the Bengals' defense, it shouldn't be too surprising that they, along with others, were out.

Said linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who did practice Wednesday after playing all 81 snaps last Sunday: "I was exhausted."

Still, just because the four didn't practice, that doesn't mean they won't be ready for kickoff. Coach Marvin Lewis was as optimistic as he has been all season when he provided an injury update during his Wednesday afternoon news conference.

"The sun came up a little bit," Lewis said, jokingly referencing the weather terms he sometimes uses to describe his players' health. "Everybody's doing a lot better than the initial Sunday-afternoon prognosis. We just have to go through the week and see how we do."

Among the good signs the Bengals do have on the injury front are those that concern cornerback Brandon Ghee. The Wake Forest product participated in the practice. It was his first since suffering a concussion in Cincinnati's preseason opener at Atlanta nearly two months ago.

"Definitely good to see him on the field to get some reps," defensive backs coach Mark Carrier said. "He hasn't played since August."

Here's the Bengals' full injury report:

Did Not Practice: CB Leon Hall (hamstring), CB Dre Kirkpatrick (hamstring), S Reggie Nelson (hamstring), G Mike Pollak (knee)

Limited Practice Participation: RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis (ankle), CB Terence Newman (knee)

Full Practice Participation: OT Anthony Collins (knee), CB Brandon Ghee (concussion)
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How does each AFC North team look in the secondary, and what still needs to be done?

Baltimore Ravens: I expect the Ravens’ secondary, like the rest of their defense, to be vastly improved from a year ago. Of course I realize that nine-time Pro Bowler Ed Reed is gone, along with fellow starting safety Bernard Pollard and starting cornerback Cary Williams. I felt Williams’ value was overblown during the Ravens’ Super Bowl run, and, while he is an enforcer, Pollard is a liability in coverage. As for Reed, well, he isn’t what he once was, but of course his ability to quarterback the secondary and make plays on the ball is still very valuable. Reed and Pollard were replaced by veteran Michael Huff and Matt Elam, the 32nd overall pick of the draft. Expect Huff to more often than not play the Reed role, as a deep middle player, but Huff also has cornerback skills and can play man coverage against wide receivers. Elam is a great hitter like Pollard, but is much younger and has tons more upside. Baltimore’s safeties are better in 2013. But the key here is the return of Lardarius Webb, one of the best corners in football who no one seems to know. Corey Graham was very solid for the Ravens last year, but it is Jimmy Smith who needs to step up. If that happens, this secondary should be among the league’s best, but depth here overall isn’t great.

Cincinnati Bengals: Overall, this looks like a fine group, with a lot of able bodies and depth. The safety spot next to Reggie Nelson, who has played at a Pro Bowl level since arriving in Cincinnati, might have been the Bengals’ worst starter in 2012, but the drafting of Shawn Williams in the third round should improve that situation. Expect Williams to unseat Taylor Mays before long. At corner, Leon Hall is the top guy, but the Bengals also get 2012 first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick back from injury, so this will more or less be his rookie season. Terence Newman should start if Kirkpatrick isn’t ready; Newman proved to have quite a bit left in the tank during the 2012 season. Adam Jones obviously entered the NFL with a ton of physical ability. At this stage of his tumultuous career, Jones has established himself as one of the top No. 3 cornerbacks in the league. There might not be a true star on the back end of Cincinnati’s defense, but overall it is a quality, well-coached unit with a good blend of veterans and youth. If Kirkpatrick hits big, this secondary could be exceptional.

Cleveland Browns: Joe Haden is the star here. He is a top-five-type corner and is capable of shutting down the opponent’s No. 1 wideout -- and could get better. The only other top-flight member of Cleveland’s secondary is T.J. Ward, a very capable two-way safety who could be on the verge of a true breakout in 2013. Beyond Haden and Ward, the Browns’ secondary has a lot of question marks. Third-round cornerback Leon McFadden is a good-looking prospect, and Cleveland picked up Chris Owens on the cheap for cornerback depth. Is McFadden ready for a starting role that will be sure to attract attention from every quarterback the Browns face? Also in the mix is Buster Skrine, who is best suited as a third corner. Several players will be fighting for playing time at safety alongside Ward, with sixth-round pick Jamoris Slaughter possessing the most long-term upside of that group of relative unknowns. Overall, the Browns’ secondary might be a major priority for upgrade after the 2013 season, but at least Cleveland looks to have significantly improved its pass rush, which could mask some coverage problems.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Keenan Lewis emerged at cornerback for the Steelers last season, but he is now playing for the Saints. Pittsburgh also allowed its depth safeties, Ryan Mundy and Will Allen, to depart via free agency. The only prominent secondary signing was former Steeler William Gay, who is obviously familiar with the system. Gay isn’t starting caliber, but he can play outside or in the slot as a third or fourth cornerback. Ike Taylor often shadows the opponent’s top wideout and overall has done a very good job. He rarely secures the interception, but Taylor is a high-end coverage player. The Steelers are counting on Cortez Allen to replace Lewis opposite Taylor. From what we saw from Allen in 2012, he should be ready for full-time action. Lewis, Gay, Taylor and Allen were all Pittsburgh mid-round picks that the Steelers developed. This past draft they again used a mid-round pick on the position with Terry Hawthorne. They did the same in 2011 with Curtis Brown. As most of these mid-rounders do, Hawthorne will likely "redshirt" during his rookie season, but Brown’s role could increase. At safety, the Steelers have one of the best starting pairs in the league -- when Troy Polamalu is healthy. Still a superb player, Polamalu just has to stay on the field. The Steelers’ defense with and without Polamalu is remarkably different. Ryan Clark has been Polamalu’s partner in crime for some time and has somewhat quietly put together a very impressive career, including an excellent 2012 season. Wisely, the Steelers drafted Shamarko Thomas, who could be Polamalu’s successor -- or his injury replacement. In the meantime, expect this young heat-seeking missile to be a dominant special-teams player.

TE Miller cautious on return to Steelers

May, 22, 2013
5/22/13
9:08
PM ET
PITTSBURGH -- Heath Miller knows his football career isn't over, just paused. When the injured Pittsburgh Steelers Pro Bowl tight end will be able to hit the "play" button again is anybody's guess.

Miller included.

Miller
While allowing there's "a chance" his surgically repaired right knee could be ready before the season opener against Tennessee on Sept. 8, Miller thinks it's too early to project just when he'll slip on his No. 83 jersey and return to his job as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's favorite target.

"I'm just trying to get better every day, and I'm doing what I've been asked to do," Miller said Wednesday. "And I'm listening to my body, so I'll just progress that way."

Five months removed from a gruesome hit that prematurely ended the best season of his career, Miller's body is telling him to be encouraged. He's already running and walked around the practice field in a T-shirt and black shorts with his right knee wrapped in tape and ice during the second day of organized team activities.

It's a far different view than the last time Miller was on a field. He made a leaping catch in the first quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals on Dec. 23 and took a low shot from Bengals safety Reggie Nelson. Miller hobbled to the sideline only to return later only to have the damage become more extensive. He ended up tearing the ACL in the knee and injuring the medial collateral ligament and posterior collateral ligament too.

The road back hasn't been easy. Miller is on an aggressive lifting program to get his right leg back into shape. Just as important is Miller's peace of mind. The pain he can deal with, the uncertainty of what his next step will hold is something else entirely. Miller figures getting a handle on the former will help him with the latter.

"That's the big thing now, the main thing, because after surgery you lose a lot of strength," Miller said. "And then there's some atrophy. So, I want to get it back to where it's as strong as my other leg."

For the full story, click here.
The Cincinnati Bengals need a starter at strong safety, and there's a good chance that they will take one early with three of the first 53 picks in the draft. One prospect who is apparently on their radar is Johnathan Cyprien.

Considered one of the top three safeties in the draft, Cyprien is having a private workout Monday at Florida International with Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

The Bengals were unable to find a safety to pair with Reggie Nelson last season and ended up re-signing Chris Crocker.

Texas' Kenny Vaccaro is generally rated as the top safety in this class, but he isn't expected to last past the Rams (No. 16) or Cowboys (No. 18). At No. 21, the Bengals could have their choice of Cyprien or Florida's Matt Elam.

Cincinnati also has two picks in the second round, 37th and 53rd overall.
During four years as the Jaguars general manager, Gene Smith developed a reputation as a personnel man who liked small college guys.

He didn’t do it early on. His four first-round picks were out of Virginia, Cal, Missouri and Oklahoma State.

But later in drafts he turned to places like William and Mary, Liberty, James Madison, Murray State, Wyoming, Lehigh and Nevada.

And he left us looking up schools like Nebraska-Omaha, Mount Union and Ashland.

Yes, he found a players like receiver Cecil Shorts, cornerback Derek Cox and offensive lineman Will Rackley from those places. But he seemed to fall for a good story from a lesser school too often. Smith’s overall hit rate was not high enough, and his small school hit rate was certainly in line with that.

No SEC players for a team in SEC country was a bone of contention for a lot of fans.

The man who replaced Smith is unlikely to plot a similar draft map.

“I always believe in drafting and acquiring toward what the norms are,” David Caldwell told John Oehser of the Jaguars website. “If 93 percent of the players in the NFL are playing at Division I-A programs, that’s the norm. I’m not saying I would never draft a small-school player, but they would have to dominate that level. I wouldn’t say absolutes, but I’m a believer: big school, big competition.’’

The Jaguars have done their share of failing in the draft from major college programs, too.

The guy doing the drafting before Smith, Shack Harris, fared terribly with SEC guys at the top of the draft: in 2008 in Derrick Harvey (Florida) and Quentin Groves (Auburn) and with safety Reggie Nelson (Florida) in 2007, though Nelson is now playing an important role for Cincinnati.

I like Caldwell talking about the norms.

You're not going to be able to piece together a quality team thinking you can outsmart the rest of the league with small-school finds. One or two here and there are fine. But most of the best players come out of the best football programs, and that's where Caldwell and his staff will do most of their looking.

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